I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:
It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.
All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.
This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click.
This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?
For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?
Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.